Lucky Shot


The jurors in Hamilton v. Accu-Tek, a lawsuit blaming gun makers for seven shootings in the New York City area, deliberated for six days at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. They repeatedly sent out notes saying they were deadlocked, but U.S. District Judge Jack B. Weinstein told them to keep arguing.

When the jurors finally announced a verdict on February 11, the puzzling mix of seemingly contradictory findings suggested that they had tried to split the difference between irreconcilable positions. They said 15 of 25 manufacturers were negligent but only nine were liable, and they awarded damages–$560,000, a pittance by the standards of modern litigation–for only one shooting.

Despite the inconsistencies, the verdict endorsed the idea that gun makers can be held liable for "negligent distribution"–in this case, for "oversupplying" firearms to states with few gun restrictions, knowing that some of the weapons will end up on the streets of New York. A similar premise underlies lawsuits filed by Chicago and other cities. (See "Firing Squad," page 58.)

The "negligent distribution" theory asserts that manufacturers are collectively responsible for criminal violence. In an audacious departure from traditional tort law, the plaintiff need not even show that his injury was caused by the defendant's product. None of the companies sued in Hamilton was charged with making any of the guns used in the shootings.

Even if it is ultimately overturned, the Hamilton verdict is expected to encourage more lawsuits by individuals and cities. Chicago and New Orleans sued gun makers last fall, and in recent months Miami, Atlanta, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, have followed their lead. Other cities, including Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, may join the list.

The industry's supporters are trying to curb this trend by lobbying state legislatures to bar cities from suing firearm manufacturers. The Georgia legislature passed such a bill in February, and the National Rifle Association is planning to work on Louisiana next. Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) has introduced a federal bill aimed at blocking the suits.